Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
An early freeze had come to the Yukon River in October of 1918, and the dozen mates and skippers of the big steam paddle wheelers just laid up for the winter had plenty to talk about as they gathered in the saloon of the big steamer Princess Sophia lighthouse as she left Skagway, bound for Seattle and outside.
With twisting channels that changed all the time, and only hand drawn charts for guidance, it wasn’t uncommon for the big steamboats to run aground or even get frozen into the ice if they tried to make one last trip in the fall. But on that night, their boats were all hauled up out of the water for the winter, the drinks were flowing and the crews could finally relax.
But up in the wheelhouse of the Princess Sophia that night, there wasn’t much relaxing going on. A nasty snowstorm had swept down from the interior of Alaska, and the Captain was anxiously picking his way along, hoping to pick up the glow of the lighthouse at Eldred Rock, before heading down Lynn Canal.
Today, GPS and radar make such a trip, even on a bitter snowy night, a breeze. But in those pre-electronic navigation days, mariners used time and compass: they knew for instance that 2 hours and 32 minutes steering 171 degrees at 10 mph, etc. should take them to the next (hopefully) visible landmark on their journey. At night and in snow it was a tricky business as you had to take the effect that the tide and the wind would have on your course into consideration.
They picked up the light from Eldred Rock around 10 pm and disappeared into the gloom. Their next landmark was an unmarked buoy xx miles south that marked jagged Vanderbuilt Reef. Even on a clear starry night, an unlit buoy would be hard to find. In any case, the tide or the wind took them off course just enough that they drove hard ashore onto Vanderbilt reef around 1 a.m. Luckily the top of the reef was more or less flat, the tide was going out, and the next morning found them high and dry on the reef, xx miles from the nearest dry land.
The good thing was that everyone was warm and safe. A few years earlier another big steamer operated by the same company, the Princess May, had gone ashore on a nearby reef and had floated off without damage when the tide came in. Probably the Captain of the Princess Sophia was thinking the same thing would happen to them.
Plus it was blowing hard. A rescue fleet of smaller boats was standing by, and had urged the Captain to send his passengers to be taken off by small boats. But there seemed to be little urgency, so the order to evacuate was never given. Then late that afternoon another storm blasted down Lynn Canal, a famous wind tunnel in the winter, and the rescue fleet headed for the shelter of nearby Tee Harbor to hang onto their anchors while the wind and the sea howled all night long.
Then at 2 a.m. a terrible call on the radio: “For God’s sake come, we are sinking.!” But the storm was so bad, the small craft of the rescue fleet couldn’t even leave Tee Harbor.
In the morning only the top of the Princess Sophia’s masts showed above the water and the top of the reef told the story: the high winds and seas had caught the Sophia’s high stern, twisting her around, ripping her plates, and blowing her off the reef into deep water.
Crews searched the waters and nearby beaches, but of the 343 passengers and crew, only a single half mad dog was found. To this day it was the largest maritime disaster in Alaska history. The tragedy was that had they elected to evacuate when they could, all would have been saved.